Author Archives: Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

About Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

Associate professor of geography and international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her work focuses on the global circulation of new forms of governance. Her first book, Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (Cornell, 2008), looked at how the transfer of new forms of corporate management to Eastern Europe reconstructed labor and created markets after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It won the Ed A. Hewett and Orbis book prizes for 2005. In 2009–11 she conducted ethnographic research in camps for internally displaced persons in the Republic of Georgia. Her new work examines humanitarian governance and the reconstruction of citizenship and personhood among displaced people there.

The Chaos of Humanitarian Aid: Adhocracy in the Republic of Georgia

Recent literature on humanitarianism, which relies heavily on political theory, portrays it as an almost totalitarian means of governing society that reduces its beneficiaries to mere biological life. This vastly overestimates the reach and power of humanitarian governance. Using a case study from the Republic of Georgia, Dunn argues that humanitarianism functions not as well-planned totalitarianism, but as an adhocracy, a form of government based on guesswork, improvisation, and “satisficing.” This not only makes humanitarian regimes far less capable of relieving suffering than their proponents claim, but also makes them far less capable of establishing sovereignty than their critics suggest.

Dunn on “The Chaos of Humanitarian Aid”

One of the things that fascinate me about humanitarianism is how chaotic it is. I expected to find the aid community to be highly professionalized, highly organized, and highly disciplined—something more like WalMart than a MASH unit. What I found instead was a huge group of aid agencies, donor governments, and representatives of local government who were mostly winging it. So my problem became figuring out how to theorize "winging it," and to find out how to trace its effects on both geopolitics and on the lives of displaced people.